Getting Bigger All the Time

Since it was introduced nearly 30 years ago, the Imax wide-screen format has been the cinematic equivalent of an amusement park ride, documenting roller coasters, auto racing, and hang gliding. But two young Chicagoans, Don and Steve Kempf, hope to expand the Imax market to include sports films, and they’re starting off with a biography of Michael Jordan. Late last month the brothers’ new production company, Giant Screen Sports, completed principal photography for Michael Jordan to the Max, a 45-minute narrative that follows Jordan from his childhood in North Carolina through his final season with the Bulls. After shooting some test footage of a Bulls-Knicks game in the spring of 1998, the Kempfs were able to enlist James Stern, a local producer who’s part-owner of the Bulls, as codirector. The brothers plan to premiere their film in Chicago next May and distribute it themselves.

For most of the 90s, Imax theaters were found primarily in museums and theme parks: Navy Pier, Six Flags Great America, and the Museum of Science and Industry all have Imax. But the format is finding a home in giant suburban multiplexes. “It’s another way of trying to get customers to come to one multiplex instead of another,” says Kempf. The Lincolnshire 20, which opened last November, has an Imax screen, as does the new Marcus Cinema in Addison. “Everything seems headed toward opening more Imax screens,” says A.J. Karpy, assistant manager of the Addison facility. “Business has been good here so far.” Kempf estimates that the U.S. has about 280 Imax screens, and Regal Cinemas, which operates the Lincolnshire multiplex, expects to open at least ten more Imax screens nationwide in the next five years.

More than anything else, the format has suffered from lack of variety. “Until recently most of the Imax films have been education oriented,” says Jonathan Douglas, manager of the Lincolnshire Imax. But other films set to debut in the coming year include an adaptation of a Stephen King story and Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box, which profiles the Las Vegas entertainers. The technology has discouraged dramatic films: Imax images are projected from horizontal frames on 70-millimeter film, which limits the screenings to 45 minutes. “The reels are so heavy that there’s a crane in every projection booth just to change them,” explains Kempf. A few years ago a 90-minute concert film of the Rolling Stones was shown with an intermission. But according to Douglas, new developments will allow theaters to break the 45-minute barrier: on January 1 the Walt Disney Company will release the 80-minute Fantasia 2000. Disney’s first Imax venture will include one segment from the 1940 classic and seven new animated sequences set to classical compositions; the score for the new segments was recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine.

Good-bye Toulouse? Not Yet.

The fat lady hasn’t sung yet. Three months ago Bob Djahanguiri announced that he was selling his Lincoln Park restaurant, Toulouse on the Park, and the adjoining Cognac Bar. But the sale collapsed, and longtime customers urged Djahanguiri to hang on. Now the owner has decided to overhaul both rooms. The formal, somewhat stuffy Toulouse is being toned down, with a more casual menu and wait staff. “It’s going to be more of a bistro-type place,” says Djahanguiri. The Cognac Bar used to be the primary local venue for New York cabaret artists like David Campbell, Phillip Officer, and Amanda McBroom, but now Djahanguiri wants to stick to local talent like Johnny Frigo, Jenna Mammina, and Audrey Morris, and keep the cover down around $5 to $7. “We’ll bring in a Bobby Short or an Eartha Kitt maybe once every couple of months.” In booking local names, Djahanguiri may have to compete with the new Davenport’s in Wicker Park, which has featured local artists in both its piano bar and its cabaret space, winning high marks from critics and attracting a loyal audience.

Another Country Is Heard From

Above the Line,” a symposium for new plays, will bring four Canadian playwrights to three Chicago theater companies this month for discussions and readings of new work. “It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this anywhere in the world,” says Linda Poole, cultural affairs officer for the Canadian consulate. The project grew out of a discussion Poole had with local director Curt Columbus after he attended a festival for new plays in Calgary earlier this year.

Russ Tutterow, artistic director for Chicago Dramatists Workshop, thinks the project will be good for Chicago as well: “There’s so much we really never hear about what’s going on in the theater world in Canada.” (Tutterow has also persuaded the Canadians to import one of his playwrights for a reading.) Goodman will present Connie Gault’s Red Lips on September 23, and the next afternoon Steppenwolf will present Michael Healey and Kate Lynch’s The Road to Hell. Before its reading of Judith Thompson’s Perfect Pie on September 25, Chicago Dramatists will host a panel discussion with Canadian playwrights, producers, and artistic directors.

Where’s Elton?

In the old days, when a Broadway musical was opening out of town, its composer would hunker down in a nearby hotel room, ready to whip up a new song if necessary. But Elton John, whose musical Aida opens December 9 at the Palace Theatre, will be touring the U.S. in late October, when the show moves here from New York to begin technical rehearsals. “Pop composers like Elton aren’t used to sitting around in hotels waiting for notes,” explains a source at Walt Disney Theatricals, the musical’s producer. John’s tour will reportedly bring him to Chicago around the time previews begin at the Palace in November. Regardless of the show’s reception, Disney plans to begin performances February 23 at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.